Oh, my. If you have never read anything authored by Daniel Woodrell and you are planning to start with his latest novel Winter’s Bone, you’d just best go ahead and brace yourself. As chilling as the wintery Appalachian landscape in which Woodrell’s characters live (and, in some cases, die), Winter’s Bone is the dark, poetic tale of sixteen-year old Ree Dolly. She’s looking for her daddy, Jessup Dolly, a known meth cook who has disappeared, leaving her as the sole caregiver to her mentally ill mother and two younger brothers. He has also signed over all of their property, house included, in order to post bond on his most recent arrest. If Jessup doesn’t show up for his looming court date, everything will be lost. The only people who can help Ree locate Jessup are her kinfolk…and they’re NOT talking. Woodrell uses his words sparingly; carefully and brutally telling Ree’s story. Every word of this novel is important. Don’t skip a single one.
What speaks to me the most about Woodrell’s work is his precise description of the poor Appalachian inhabitants of Ree’s community (most of whom she is in some way kin). Having spent most of my adolescent summers and Thanksgivings at my grandmother’s house in rural Kentucky, I recognize the truth in Woodrell’s words. Familiar are the close shacks, or trailers pulled up next to trailers, families living up under each other. Familiar are the fresh animal carcasses hanging from trees and porches, a different kind of strange fruit. Familiar is the justice effected by members of the community, not by the law. Living in rural Appalachia leaves its mark on a person. Ree best describes some of the most visible marks. “With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mended bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs. The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, cooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can’t, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and Ree nodded yup. Yup” (Woodrell, Winter’s, pg. 28&29).
Everything foreshadows the danger and brutality Woodrell’s characters face daily. “The sky lay dark and low so a hawk circling overhead floated in and out of clouds. The wind heaved and knocked the hood from her head. That hawk was riding the heaving wind looking to kill something. Looking to snatch something, rip it bloody, chew the tasty parts, let the bones drop” (Woodrell, Winter’s, pg. 29).
Especially compelling is Ree’s baby brother Harold, who is tender, even as Ree tries to teach him how live in their merciless environment. Harold wants to set food out for the coyotes because they “look like dogs” and “they’re hungry.” Impatiently Ree responds, “’Settin’ out food’ll draw ‘em close-that’s likely how they’ll come too close and get shot, Harold. Don’t set no goddam food out. It looks like you’re doin’ nice, but you ain’t. You’re just bringin’ ‘em into range, is all.’” Harold still pleads, “But you can hear how hungry they are” (Woodrell, Winter’s, pg. 46). Hungry sounds the same, whether the sound comes from child or animal. Harold painfully recognizes the sound of hungry because he’s been hungry himself. In another moment when Ree is teaching the boys to shoot squirrels, Harold has shot one in the hind quarters without killing it, and the animal is writhing in the snow. Ree instructs Harold to “’notch his head ‘tween two fingers’n pull-like with a chicken.’” Harold cries, “He’s callin’ for his momma!” (Woodrell, Winter’s, pg. 103).
I could keep on with this review, but that would keep you from going out and getting a copy of this book to read, because everyone should read this book. Now, go on out and get it.